The Longest Day

The year has now rolled past its tipping point and the days are inexorably starting to shorten once again – but there is still a whole lot of summer left and we intend to make the most of it.

On the longest day we returned to Reculver, near Herne Bay on the north coast of Kent, to give the dog an outing and see how the Sand Martin colony was getting on.

The imposing twin towers of the medieval church at Reculver

Strung along the cliff there are clusters of Sand Martin burrows and, around them, the air becomes wonderfully alive with the calls of Sand Martins as they bring food in for their chicks and take out their faecal sacs.

Sand Martins – a brown and white hirundine with a broad brown chest band

This next photo was taken of an adult Sand Martin just about to emerge from its burrow on the right with a faecal sac in its beak. It was only when I was going through the photos later that I saw the three chicks huddled together in another hole on the left:

Two more chicks peering out of their hole:

I came across a blog of someone who has been birding in the Reculver area for many decades. He reported that there are only about thirty pairs here this year which is much lower than normal. Since this is the first year that we have visited the colony, we didn’t know to be depressed about this and were actually delighted with the nesting birds that we saw.

Although we did notice that this section of Sand Martin burrows, nearest to Reculver, was completely devoid of birds:

Let us hope that this year is a blip for them. We shall visit again next year and hope for better things.

There are a thousand or so different plant galls in Britain, where an insect or other organism co-opts a plant into forming a protective structure to assist it through a particular stage of its lifecycle. There are fifty different galls on our oaks trees alone. We were on holiday recently with a lady who was fascinated with galls, particularly their artistic form so that she could draw them, and I think she would have liked this attractive one that we found on ground ivy in the wood this week:

A red hairy sphere on a ground ivy leaf
The underside of the leaf

The gall is caused by the gall wasp Liposthenes glechomae and the sphere will contain a single wasp larva at its centre:

A gall cut in half to reveal the wasp larva. Photo courtesy of bladmineerders.nl under ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence

The larva pupates in the galls over winter and the new adult will emerge in late spring

It was a dull day in the wood and this well camouflaged Hummingbird Hawk moth was resting on the woodland floor, awaiting some sunshine

I have lost count but I think that it is about ten Great Spotted Woodpeckers that have been caught and ringed in the wood this spring. Possibly our peanut feeder is bringing them in from far and wide.

A ringed male with red at the back of his head

During a ringing session in the wood this week, a juvenile with its red cap was also ringed.

A juvenile, although its right leg isn’t visible to check if this is the one that was ringed

A badger cub with its parent in the wood:

A male badger out in the wood at first light
A woodland fox
A buzzard at the owl box
Bullfinches breed in the wood each summer

Once again, the camera looking at the woodpecker hole in the cherry tree has caught a bat going in to roost in there:

Before our daughters wedding last week, we were seeing a lot of this young badger in the meadows. Every day it was coming out into the meadows in the afternoon:

The scruffy little bottom of a badger cub as it makes its way back to its burrow

However, since we have returned from our few days away, there have been no further sightings of any of the badger cubs, even on the cameras. The dry spring and early summer will have been very difficult for them since their main food source, earthworms, have gone down deep and inaccessible. I hope to see them again but suspect I might not.

We have this very distinctive magpie here this year, with lost facial feathers revealing its ear:

Here is it eating a snail and we have often seen magpies eating these, as well as rodents, eggs and small birds:

However, we have never caught them red-handed with lizards before:

But magpies don’t always have it all their own way. Predator became prey this week when we saw one in the mouth of a fox:

Another camera caught this as well and I can see that it is the One-eyed Vixen that has got the bird:

This next photo caused much discussion amongst the family when asked what they thought this was in the mouth of the fox cub:

Can I see black furry legs? It’s not a black cat, is it? Or a crow? I have a second photo from a different camera:

This is definitely another bird in the mouth of the One-eyed Vixen:

And this is a dogfish:

I find it so interesting to see the range of prey items taken by our country foxes. Of course the foxes in the meadows also have a small serving of peanut protein at dusk each night:

One of the adult foxes with a lovely shiny nose
The sole cub in the meadows this year, offspring of the One-eyed Vixen

What an extremely sweet young rabbit and how nice to not see it in the mouth of a fox:

We are enjoying seeing all the Starlings that are here at the moment:

One of them is colour-ringed although I am not even close to being able to read that ring. There is apparently a lady who colour-rings starlings in nearby Deal and no doubt this bird is one of hers:

In the wet early summer of last year, I loved seeing blackbirds and song thrush with their beaks stuffed full of worms to give to their young. This year it has been so dry and there hasn’t been anything like that at all on the cameras – I wonder how they are feeding their chicks?

Song Thrush with a solitary worm. How different this is from last year

But baby blackbirds are starting to be seen in the meadows now, so some alternative food was clearly found for them:

When the neighbouring field is growing grain, plucked seed heads are discarded all over the meadows and we did suspect the crows. Now we have some evidence for this:

This crow has an orderly row of four brown pellets in its beak. I don’t know what they are but the bird has come to soften them in the water before swallowing:

On a cool day this week, I looked under one of the reptile sampling squares where there is a black ant nest and there were a very large number of ant pupae of two different sizes:

The ants were in the process on transporting some more of the larger pupae up to the surface:

The next day was much warmer and there were no pupae at all to be seen under the reptile square. They had all been taken back underground:

Presumably the pupae are being put in different places to keep them at the right temperature, but what an extraordinary amount of work that is for the ants. Ants are a very important part of the meadow ecosystem here and I have set myself the challenge of finding out a bit more about them and why there are two different sizes of pupae.

Some other images from the meadows this week:

Sparrowhawk on the gate
Haven’t seen much of our kestrels in recent weeks
The length of a wren’s beak and the angle that they cock their tail make this such an eye catching little bird
We see a few Grey Wagtails here every year on passage
A Privet Hawkmoth found on the gate
The Marbled Whites are back in the meadow
A Hummingbird Hawkmoth on red valerian. It all happened so fast and this is the best I could get
Pyramidal Orchids are starting to flower
An Early Bumblebee enjoying some nectar
Mason bee season is now over for another year. It seems to have been a good one here and I will have quite a few completed tubes to send back for processing as part of the Red Mason Bee guardianship scheme come September
The June bugs are out and swarming around the hedgerows at dusk. They bump into me as I go to put the peanuts out which is most disconcerting

Sunset over the meadows shortly before 10pm on the longest day:

A section of the first meadow that we seeded seven years ago with native perennials is looking absolutely fabulous and is heaving with bees and butterflies:

What a wonderful time of year, I wish I could bottle it.

The Wedding and Beyond

Last weekend one of our daughters got married at beautiful Firle Place near Lewes in Sussex.

On the perfect June day, it was an occasion filled with unalloyed joy, love and friendship.

The bride is known for her admiration of seals and her sister had made seal toppers for the ‘cake’ of cheeses

The following day, happy but exhausted, we made our way onwards to a comfortable hotel we know in Wareham in Dorset for some rest and relaxation. The hotel is set in four acres of charming gardens on the banks of the River Frome and we were really looking forward to returning there.

This time, we stayed in the hotel’s old boathouse which is on the banks of the river. We could sit outside on our little terrace and quietly watch the water as it flowed in and then flowed out again with each turning of the tide.

Our room was on the right hand side of this boathouse

Wareham is three miles upstream from the sea and we were surprised to see a seal so far inland:

It made the kayakers happy too. A few seconds later, the seal had gone back under but the camera caught the mens joy:

Sitting on our terrace, we often heard a cuckoo calling and the local mallard and swan families frequently swam by, just to check if we had any bread for them.

Directly across the river from the boathouse was one end of a row of trees:

The line of trees from another angle

These trees are a major crow roost and thousands of these charismatic birds converge on them at dusk, presumably flying in from all over the Isle of Purbeck. It was quite a spectacle to watch from our terrace as it got dark- and to listen to as well because it was all quite a racket.

One day we took advantage of the long summer evening and went on the two rivers walk, carrying a picnic supper with us – out along the side of the River Piddle, returning along the River Frome.

Along the way we came across this wonderfully eccentric Wareham house:

We had a look in the Priory Church of Lady St Mary and this font, astoundingly dating from 1100, is the only hexagonal lead font in existence. The twelve apostles surround the bowl and I wonder how many children they have helped baptise over the last thousand years:

In the graveyard of the church, I was very moved to see this border collie, who has been waiting by his master’s grave since 2005:

As we were wandering around, reading the gravestones, the strawberry moon came up:

By then it was gone nine o’clock and time to get ourselves back to our terrace to watch the crows coming in to roost.

Dorset has some of the biggest and best lowland heath remaining in the UK. A lot of specialised species are supported within a heathland ecosystem – most of which we are totally unfamiliar with. But when we were in the area last August, we did spot two exciting heathland species:

The nocturnal Nightjar, resting up by day
The small and sweet Heath Bee-fly

This time we returned to Arne RSPB reserve and also went to two Dorset Wildlife Trust reserves – Higher Hyde Heath and Tadnoll and Winfrith Heath – and were successful in seeing some more wonderful heathland species.

A butterfly that I had long wanted to see is the Silver-studded Blue, a specialist of heathlands. This butterfly has a close association with black ants which look after the caterpillars within the ant nest, feeding off their sugar-rich secretions in return. Although I had never seen this butterfly before, I have now seen hundreds and hundreds of them, since all three of the reserves we visited had good numbers of them fluttering around. I read that an individual butterfly never travels further than twenty metres from the ants nest where it emerged.

Photographing Silver-studded Blue butterflies at Arne

The butterflies got their name because the underside of the hindwing often has beautiful metallic blue-centred spots, as seen in the brownish female below. Although this doesn’t explain why they are not called blue-studded rather than silver-studded:

The brownish female on top in this mating pair
The blueish male on top in this one

These butterflies were much less easy to photograph when they were not mating because they rarely stayed still for very long. The upperside of the wings has a thick border of black between the blue and the white:

We had never really come across sundews before and so were very excited to see lots of them growing in the nutrient-poor heathland soil at the Tadnoll and Winfrith Heath reserve. Although they are very small, once you got your eye in for them, you realised that there were so many growing at the sides of the paths where the heather was low. These carnivorous plants supplement their diet by catching and digesting insects on their sticky leaves:

Photographing the sundews (Drosera rotundifolia)
Many of the plants were starting to flower. The flower stalks are very long, presumably to reduce the risk that the pollinating insects get stuck on their leaves and perish
The leaves have long red hairs with a drop of a sticky mucilaginous substance at the ends. This substance is loaded with sugars to attract in insects and I suppose the red colour of the hairs might be mimicking flower petals too
The leaves can respond to touch and, when an insect is caught, the leaf bends round it to ensure as many of the red hairs are in contact with the insect as possible to speed digestion. Fascinating stuff

These Red-banded Sand Wasps were very busy digging out nests on the heathland floor:

Once they have made their nest, they then sting and paralyse caterpillars and carry them back to feed their larvae

There are several heathland dragonflies. I had never seen a Keeled Skimmer before. The thin dark line down the length of the abdomen gives it the name:

A female Keeled Skimmer. The males are blue

Another heathland dragonfly is the Four-spotted Chaser:

Each wing has two spots, rather than the more normal one, along its leading edge

Sika Deer were introduced into the country from the Far East in the 1860s and there is a large population of them in Dorset. Whilst they do help maintain the heathland habitat with their grazing, these deer have no natural predators and so the RSPB now hires professional stalkers to control numbers at their Arne reserve.

Sika Deer – small head, rounded ears and somewhat spotty

Common Cotton-grass – a plant of boggy moors and heaths:

The final heathland species we saw was the Stonechat. These birds are a birdwatcher’s dream with their penchant for perching in prominent positions and calling attention to themselves with their chatting noise.

The male looks so smart
The female in her dog collar
The spotty and stripy juvenile

There are so many more heathland species that we wanted to see but failed to – the Dartford Warbler for instance. Arne is famous for having all six species of British reptile living there (including the Sand Lizard and the Smooth Snake) yet we saw not a single one of these. It does look like we are just going to have to return to our comfortable hotel in Wareham sometime soon and do some more searching…

A Lovely Jubbly Jubilee

The whole country has been celebrating Elizabeth II’s seventy year reign over this special, long weekend. In the sunshine of Friday, we attended the Wye village street party in the North Downs where one of our daughters now lives:

A riot of red, white and blue at the street party in Church Street, Wye with the church of St Gregory and St Martin overseeing the proceedings at one end. There has been a church on this spot, dedicated to St Gregory, since early Saxon times

As we ate our picnic lunch, swifts were circling the church tower, presumably nesting within. A kestrel was also perched up on the tower – perhaps he too is nesting within the ancient masonry of the church.

An unexpected visitor was this Spitfire that flew over, saw the party below, circled back to us and barrel rolled over our heads. The sight and the sound of that made me feel very emotional:

One of the villagers is clearly an extraordinarily good knitter. I remember that this post box was adorned with a wonderful knitted creation last Christmas as well:

The Queen together with one of her beloved corgi dogs

The Queen’s corgi also had a starring role on this brownie tray bake that we brought along to the picnic. It purportedly serves six but we didn’t need that number to polish it off..

This beautifully decorated brownie, courtesy of The Blushing Cook, was apparently completely delicious. Shame that I cannot taste or smell anything having recently recovered from covid

There has been a nationwide competition to devise a celebratory pudding for the Jubilee. There were five thousand entries and the winner was a lemon Swiss roll and amaretti trifle, now renamed the Platinum Pudding. It is quite an involved recipe but I thoroughly enjoyed making it to take to the party. It is a lovely thought that this trifle will have been made and eaten up and down the country this weekend.

A Reed Bunting in a statuesque hemlock, spotted on a stroll down to the River Stour after the party

We are often to be found admiring the wonderful, sculptural weeping beech tree that stands in the garden:

Eight years ago, when first viewing the house, we walked under this tree’s canopy into the atmospheric green cathedral at its heart and I pictured our as-yet-unborn grandchildren building secret dens in there and having tea parties with their teddy bears:

Although, at this time of year, it is not just its appearance that is mesmerising, but also its sound. The entire tree hums loudly as if it were an enormous beehive.

But why are there so many bumblebees coming to the tree? It is not flowering at the moment – but even if it were, the flowers are wind pollinated and not designed to attract insects.

The visiting bumblebees were crawling around on the leaves

The answer to the puzzle lies with these Woolly Beech Aphids (Phyllaphis fagi) with their ridiculously furry white cloaks. They are to be found in low densities underneath many of the beech leaves and it is the honeydew that they produce that is bringing in the bees:

For most of the spring and summer the aphids will be this unwinged form. Then, towards the end of the summer, winged aphids will be produced that can disperse off to other beech trees.
Copious drops of sweet aphid honeydew for the bees to enjoy

I love the thought of this beech tree being an enormous free energy filling station for our pollinators, where they can come to to refuel whenever they need to.

Elsewhere, the small Alder Buckthorn trees have a sprinkling of Brimstone butterfly caterpillars this year and, every time I go past, I look to see how they are getting on. The caterpillars lie along the central vein of the leaf during the day to help with their disguise:

Three Brimstones to spot in this photograph

It was during one such check that I saw one of the caterpillars being predated:

This is a larva of a green lacewing (Chrysophidae), a predator of aphids and other soft-bodies insects such as caterpillars. The lacewing larva’s maxillae can be seen sticking into the caterpillar – these are hollow, and digestive juices are pumped out through them into the caterpillar, breaking down its tissues. The resulting nutrient soup can then be sucked back in through them.

Lacewings are thus considered true gardeners’ friends because not only are these larvae voracious predators of garden ‘pests’ such as aphids, the adults are also effective pollinators.

The next day, I’m afraid that the caterpillar did look pretty well digested:

Last year I found what must be a different species of lacewing larva. This one had disguised itself by sticking bits of debris onto its back in order to get access to their aphid prey – ants guard aphid colonies whilst farming them for the honeydew and these ants are apparently fooled by the lacewings disguise and let them pass in. All very, very interesting:

A ‘disguised’ lacewing larva from last year
A colony of black aphids on dock, together with their guardian ants
Speckled Wood in the hedgerow
Small Blue by the pond
Cinnabar Moth, come to lay its eggs on any ragwort that dare show its head here. These days, however, for a variety of reasons we operate a zero tolerance policy of alexanders, wild parsnip and ragwort in the meadows and so these moths had much better go elsewhere
Yellow-barred Long-horn Moth
A ball of Spindle Ermine Moth caterpillars in their protective web

I have seen Wren, Dunnock and Blackbird with caterpillars in their beaks to feed their young:

And fledglings are now being seen on the cameras. Robin:

And Starling:

And a just-fledged Great Spotted Woodpecker with its red cap was seen in the wood:

In the meadows, just before seven o’clock one the evening, look at these two baby badgers coming out into the open by the wild pond:

The problem was that, at this point, we ourselves were standing at the wild pond looking for dragonfly emergences – we were talking loudly to each other but this didn’t seem to put the silly sausages off. Actually the real problem was that we had the dog with us and unfortunately she pounced on one of the badgers. I got a fleeting glimpse of a dog with a badger in its mouth and screamed, the dog backed off and the small badger scuttled away.

Our dog is only interested in chasing rather than killing things, and I believe that she will have just mouthed rather than bitten the badger.

But things took a potentially darker turn a couple of days later. The dog alerted us to the fact that a baby badger was lying above ground in a hedge up close to the house, which is a whole hundred metres away from the badger sett. We gently poked the little thing with a stick and it raised its head to look at us and then flopped back down.

My assumption was that this is the badger that the dog caught and it was now sick with an injury or infection. I phoned around several wildlife charities to ask advice but it was the RSPCA who were able to send an inspector out. She arrived in the early evening, captured the animal and took it to a vet in Canterbury who checked the animal over, took its temperature and ensured that it had no injuries. It was declared fit and well and the inspector brought the little cub back to be released close to the sett just as it was getting dark, none the worse for its little adventure.

The RSPCA inspector returns from the vet with the little cub
The cub is released very close to its sett to return to its mother

We were all delighted that there was a happy ending but couldn’t understand what the cub was doing sleeping on its own up above ground and so far from its sett. Perhaps it had got completely lost? But what a fantastic response from the RSPCA when we needed them, and we will now give this worthy charity a donation to show our appreciation for their help.

The sole fox cub in the meadows this year is starting to look very grown up:

The One-eyed Vixen and her cub

Although the young fox is still interested in suckling, when its mother is distracted and eating peanuts:

With the addition of the cub to our band of foxes, it is starting to look like a crowd:

The cub is on the left

I would like to finish today with the daunting amount of broad beans that we have harvested over the weekend. There is now a big shelling and blanching job to be done before the beans can be safely packed away into the freezer.

What a whole lot of beans from one packet of seeds, pressed down into the soil last autumn. We do like broad beans but, even so, these should keep us going for a very, very long time.

Taking The Time to Recover

It’s been a funny old week and one in which I’ve not been feeling terribly well, covid having finally hunted me down and dealt its bitter blow. But me being out of action has not stopped the trusty trail cameras from stepping up and recording life in the meadows as spring starts to tip over into summer.

One warm and sunny afternoon, our long-standing pair of foxes spent a relaxing half hour grooming each other in amongst the buttercups. This is now the third year that these two foxes have raised a family together in the meadows and it soothed my troubled soul to see them tenderly bonding and caring for each other in the sunshine. The male started off the proceedings:

The One-eyed Vixen with her blind left eye:

Then the roles reversed and it was her turn to do the work:

I love this next photo in particular:

Cleaning his ears out:

This was a good opportunity to see her up close and be reassured that the mange treatment has been successful – fur is definitely growing back in those bald patches:

But there is also the important business of catching food to feed the family and here is the male again with a young rabbit:

And, on another day, with an adult rabbit:

This seems a good point to include this action shot of a different fox dashing full pelt after some pigeons:

The pair of foxes have had just one cub this year:

The fox family at peanut time. The cub is trying to suckle from the One-eyed Vixen while she is busy eating

I had thought there were three badger cubs in the meadows this year, from two mothers. Now, for first time, here is a photo all three together and my suspicions are confirmed:

One of the cubs out in the afternoon

But then, this weekend, we have found a newly dead baby badger lying in the middle of the second meadow.

There was nothing obviously wrong. Sadly, mortality of badger cubs is very high, particularly in dry springs such as this year when the soil is hard and earthworms, their main food source, have gone down deep.

The vegetation in the wild pond is growing strongly and the Yellow Flag Irises are out:

The bumblebees love these flowers but have to crawl a long way in to get at what they want:

The dark lines on the lower lip of the flower guide the bees towards the nectar. As they crawl in, the upper part of the flower, containing the reproductive parts of the plant, is pressed down onto the back of the bee.

With unexpected time on my hands as I isolate, I found three different species of damselfly around the ponds at this time of year. I don’t often pay damselflies much attention:

An Azure Damselfly resting upon an iris
Egg-laying Azures
Blue-tailed Damselfly
Large Red Damselfly

There are two exciting new plants growing in the wet grassland at the margins of the wild pond this year.

One of the botanical recorders for East Kent is a neighbour and she has told us that, although somewhat different to each other, these are both Common Spotted Orchids. This is the first record of these plants for the meadows.

I often try to identify hoverflies but find them difficult. This one, however, with its stripy thorax is quite distinctive and I feel reasonably confident in saying it is Helophilus pendulus.

I am so pleased that the Alder Buckthorn trees are covered in Brimstone butterfly caterpillars again this year. We planted these trees specifically for the Brimstones to use and, for the first couple of years, they did indeed have lots of caterpillars on them. So many, in fact, that the young trees were stripped and I had to move the caterpillars from tree to tree to wherever there were leaves remaining for them to eat. But, for the last three years, there have been no caterpillars whatsoever chomping on the Alder Buckthorn leaves. In a way this was good because it has given the trees a chance to properly establish themselves, but what had happened to the Brimstones?

So this year we are glad to welcome them back and hope that they are now here to stay:

The Burnet Companion day-flying moth
Mating Common Blues

Froghoppers are busy in May and cuckoo spit is everywhere in the meadows. Froghopper nymphs suck the sap of the plant, excrete it and whisk it up with air into a mass of bubbles which then protects it. The salad burnet seems very popular:

Salad burnet and cuckoo spit. The little green leafhopper nymph sits within the spit

It seems to be a good year too for Common Broomrape (Orobanche minor). This parasitic plant obtains nutrients underground from the roots of various plants in the pea and daisy families – clover is a particular favourite here:

Several stalks of Broomrape parasitising a patch of clover

Most of the Common Broomrape is a pinkish brown colour but, in one area of the first meadow, several stalks of the bright yellow form grow every year:

Blackbirds are still building their nests – this appears to be very late but I remember that the same thing happened last year. The breeding season for blackbirds apparently starts in March but can go on until the end of July.

The breeding season of Woodpigeon, however, can go on until the end of October:

We have quite a few pairs of breeding Starling here at the moment and I am looking forward to the juveniles starting to appear because they are always so comical.

Fledgling Starlings have not yet been seen

The allotment is romping away although, once I’m feeling better, it definitely needs a jolly good weed:

All sorts of lovely veg and herbs in the allotment, in a riot of lush growth at this time of year

Over in the wood, there have been no further photos of the Tawny owlets, but, then again, the cameras are not set up in good positions. It all feels very quiet and deserted around the box and there is no beak clacking – perhaps they have now fledged? There was a photo of an adult owl there this week:

And a Great Spotted Woodpecker peering in:

A very sweet fox cub, seen at the far end of the wood to the fox den that we have a camera on. Perhaps this cub is from a different litter:

A Broad Bodied Chaser hunting in the wood:

My previous post covered our recent trip to The Vercors in France, but I forgot to include the marmot that we saw and so here it is now:

This was the first time I had seen one of these animals fully out of its burrow and I was a bit surprised to see that they have that furry black tail

But, as so often happens with holidays, France already seems such a long time ago. I am taking things one day at a time here but, by my next post, I hope to have reemerged and be able to enjoy what remains of this glorious May before it disappears.

A Week Away – The Vercors By Train

The Vercors is a beautiful and mountainous area of France, much overlooked by tourists although packed full of natural history. Travelling as part of a Naturetrek group holiday, we stayed in a simple but lovely family-run hotel in the village of La Chapelle-en-Vercors, at the heart of the region.

The Vercors is a pre-Alpine massif where the limestone crags rise up to just over two thousand metres. Grenoble lies to the north-east and Lyons to the north-west
Lots of dramatic limestone rock to admire

The small hotel had a wild swimming pond in the grounds, absolutely delicious to dip into after a long, hot day of nature watching.

The pool was at least two metres deep in the middle. We floated around amongst the fish and tadpoles, watching birds coming down to drink and wash in its shallows, whilst dreaming of building one of these in the meadows!

The remoteness of the area and difficulty of the terrain meant that The Vercors was a stronghold for the French Resistance in the Second World War. However, even after eighty years, the area is still haunted by the memory of the atrocities that happened here in the summer of 1944. Shortly after the Allies landed in Normandy in June 1944, the poorly-armed members of the Resistance came down from their hideouts in the Vercors mountains and attacked the German troops stationed on the plateau, thinking that the Allies would soon be arriving to give them support. However, their timing was off and, before Allied forces could reach them, the Germans had landed gliders packed with elite soldiers onto the central grassy valley of the massif. These soldiers hunted down and killed the Resistance fighters. There then followed a series of reprisals including the razing to the ground of the village in which we were staying. The men of the village were herded into a farmyard and shot.

The same thing happened in the nearby village of Vassieux-en-Vercors, and the murdered villagers along with the fallen Resistance fighters now rest in a special graveyard to commemorate them.

A stark reminder of the atrocities in the area in the summer of 1944
A view over the central grassy valley where the gliders carrying elite German soldiers landed. The graveyard can be seen in the centre of the photo, with the village of Vassieux-en-Vercors, now rebuilt, to the right

The region is famous for its botany and both of our guides were extremely knowledgeable. We saw around thirty-five species of orchid over the course of the week and here is a selection of some of them:

Late Spider Orchid
A meadow of Elderflower Orchids, both the yellow variety and a few of the deep pink ones
Burnt Tip Orchid
A patch of Early Purples
A small Early Purple Orchid with a big view
The Vercors is in the Drôme department of France and this is the Drôme Orchid which is found mainly there

One of the complications of orchids is their ability to hybridise amongst themselves. We saw several such hybrids, and this one below is a cross between a Monkey Orchid and a Man Orchid:

I have saved the best until last. I have wanted to see a Lady’s Slipper Orchid for years and here one is, growing free and wild in The Vercors:

But it was not all about the orchids. We saw and identified hundreds of other plants. This Greater Butterwort, growing in damp, low nutrient soil, is carnivorous:

It supplements its diet by catching and digesting flies on its sticky leaves:

Flies caught on the sticky leaves of the Greater Butterwort

There didn’t seem to be as many birds around as we had hoped. We did, however, get good views of a pair of Red-backed Shrike:

These birds are famous for their habit of impaling prey on thorns or barbed wire to form a larder. The prey can be large insects, small birds, rodents, frogs and reptiles.

We saw a lot of Alpine Chough with their red legs but yellow beak:

Griffon Vulture were often soaring up in the sky, recognisable with pale heads and a black trailing edge to their wings:

A Short-toed Eagle was an exciting spot. This bird mainly eats snakes which it sees while soaring up to five hundred metres high:

House Martins and Swifts were nesting in and around the roofline of the church in La Chapelle-en-Vercors:

House Martins’ mud nests around the church

As well as the wonderful orchids, the area has an enviable number and variety of butterflies. Here is a fairly typical scene of our group wandering through a flower meadow one morning, happily catching butterflies and botanising:

It was worth stopping to look at any scat found on the ground to see what butterflies it was attracting:

Three Grizzled Skippers, a Dingy Skipper, a Small Blue and a Speckled Yellow moth on some scat

We see a few Small Blue Butterflies in the meadows every year, but here in The Vercors we saw hundreds:

Small Blue butterflies
Blue butterflies were attracted to the salt on our skin
Adonis Blue butterfly
I have long wanted to see an Apollo butterfly
A lovely green Forester moth, out flying by day

One of the most amazing things I saw were these Owlflies – I had never seen anything like them before. This is the Owly Sulphur (Ascalaphus libelluloides):

At about 4cm in length, excluding the antennae, these are big things. They are aerial predators of other flying insects
The Owly Sulphur

Actually this next insect is pretty astounding too. One night we ran a moth trap and this nymph of the Masked Hunter Fly (Reduvius personatus) was found lurking inside it in the morning:

The nymph camouflages itself with dust

We have Burnet moths in the meadows, but not any that look like this:

Zygaena rhadamanthus

This bee-fly is also a very different one to ours:

Bombylella atra. The Black Bee-fly

Some members of the group watched as this Great Green Bush Cricket emerged as an adult:

Great Green Bush Cricket with discarded nymphal case
Paper Wasp and her nest which was on a little stalk attached to the rock

It had been unseasonably hot all week. On the last day, we celebrated the end of a successful holiday by visiting the town of Pont-en-Royans where Naturetrek treated us all to ice creams:

The ‘hanging houses’ of Pont-en-Royans
Watching with our hearts in our mouths as boys leapt into the river at Pont-en-Royans

What with one thing and another, it had been a few years since we had ventured off British soil and actually it felt so good to be somewhere different for a while. Now safely installed back in the meadows, everything seems to have grown so much whilst we were away – what a difference a week can make at this time of year.

It’s That Small Blue Time Again

May is surely the most glorious of months, filled with the delicious promise of the summer to come. In the sunshine of this week, we have been delighted to welcome Small Blue butterflies back to the meadows. Each year we forget quite how small they actually are, and are surprised afresh to see such miniature things. The British population has dropped nearly 50% since the 1970s, and their range has considerably contracted, but numbers are currently thought to be stable. They are rare and special little butterflies, but in this part of East Kent there is a minor hotspot of them. The larval food plant is Kidney Vetch and I always try to make sure that there is plenty growing here for them to lay their eggs onto.

This is a blade of grass that he is resting on – they really are very tiny. The wingspan of the male above can be as little as 16mm. Like the butterfly itself, its latin name, Cupidus minimus, is also very pleasing
The underwings are pale blue with black spots
But the upper wings are dark. Although, as here, the males do have a scattering of blue scales

Other butterflies have also been newly seen in the meadows, flitting about in the sunshine this week:

Brown Argus. Another diminutive butterfly, but a bit larger than the Small Blue
The Small Heaths are out now too
A Purple Bar moth, out flying by day

Nest building is continuing in the meadows. We were watching a robin nest being built in a worryingly open position at the bottom of a shrub in the garden

This nest is not well hidden at all
The female lays one egg a day, usually first thing in the morning, until the clutch is complete with 4-6 eggs. She then starts sitting on them for thirteen days until they all hatch together. Three eggs so far here
I should not have taken this photo. I subsequently read that, whilst still egg laying, robins are notoriously liable to abandon their nest if they think it has been discovered. I felt guilty once I learnt that and, although I did get away with it this time and more eggs were subsequently laid, it was a valuable lesson learnt. Sadly all did not end well though. Once five eggs had been laid, but before the female started incubating them, they completely disappeared, having been discovered by a predator. I suspect a magpie of course

There has been a lot of blackbird nesting activity as well. As with robins, it is the female that does all the nest building:

The bird can scarcely be seen behind this leaf she is carrying

The male maintains a presence in the vicinity and is generally on guard although I am not sure what is going on here:

Before dawn one morning, a pair of Song Thrush were mating in the grass in front of a camera:

Two magpies, the scourge of our nesting songbirds

The magpie on the right is very distinctive with its facial feather loss, possibly caused by mites. You can see its ear which is lower than might be expected

One night a hedgehog walked the entire length of the meadows south to north along the side of the cliff. It was caught on four separate cameras during this journey, until it reached this water dish at the northernmost extremity:

At this point, there is a hole under the fence back onto the cliff and I presume this is where the animal then went. Hedgehog sightings always a cause a stir around here since they are so very occasional with no more than one or two a year.

Fox amongst the buttercups

There have been more sightings of the One-eyed Vixen’s single cub. So far there just seems to be one fox cub in the meadows this year:

Playing with its mother, the One-eyed Vixen

The baby badger twins are also being seen out and about a bit more:

The adult male in the daylight:

Broomrape, parasitic on clover, is starting to make an appearance:

One thing that we hadn’t properly realised before coming to the meadows was how different every year is. One year something can be in complete abundance, only to be scarcely seen the next. We have found that this is generally not something to worry about because, the year after that, it will be back again. This is Empis tessellata , a predatory dance fly. At this time of year it is normal to see a male Empis tessellata, perched in the hedgerow, holding his St Mark’s fly prey as an offering to a female so that he can mate with her while she eats it:

But not this year. Usually in late April and early May there would be clouds of these St Mark’s flies around the hedgerows, flying with their legs distinctively dangling. This year, however, there have been hardly any. We have barely seen any Green Hairstreak butterflies either, whereas ordinarily the meadows are a good place for them. We have missed both of these species very much and hope to see them back in good numbers in 2023.

We walked down to our local white cliffs this week to see if the cliff-nesting House Martins had returned from Africa and were busy building their mud nests under the overhangs and into the crevices of the vertical chalk faces. But no House Martin was yet to be seen and only the forlorn footprints of last year’s mud dwellings were clinging on to the cliff:

There was one nest that looked freshly built, but no House Martin visited it whilst we were there:

This is surely a newly built nest

Last year, it was only really at the end of May that things got going there, so we will return in a couple of weeks to see if there has been any progress.

Linnets were definitely nest building though:

Linnet gathering nest material

We saw this very large and hairy Drinker Moth caterpillar crawling through the long coastal grasses:

And this was a lovely green beetle:

Cryptocephalus aureolus

There are quite a few Early Spider Orchids flowering down there on the vegetated shingle:

Over in the wood, we wanted to get another no-glow trail camera on the owl box. Our options were very limited and it felt imperative to keep disruption around the box to a minimum, and so this skewed view below was the best we could do in the circumstances. We hoped to get photos of the young owls when they start branching and, pleasingly, this is now what we are getting. An owlet peers out of the box:

This next photo is a screenshot from a wonderful video where the adult landed at the box with a vole. Having piqued the chicks interest, the adult then flew up to a nearby branch still holding the prey, as if to lure the chick out of the box to get the food:

And then it happened. The young owl came out of the box and started hopping around the branches and even flew short distances

Eventually the small owl safely returned to her box.

When we bought the wood three years ago, we never dared to hope that we would have the privilege to watch something as special as this.

At another point, a sparrowhawk landed in the vicinity of the box. She wouldn’t take a Tawny owlet, would she?

In the last post, I was wondering if this unidentified bird was a Nightingale. I had never seen one before but it seemed to fit the description:

The bird ringer tells me that this is actually a Reed Warbler that will have been passing through. Still a new species for the wood list, but not as exciting as a Nightingale.

A Nightingale would be more robin-like with a rounded head, a definite rufous tail and a pale eye ring. Well, I will keep looking:

Image of a Nightingale courtesy of Commons.wikipedia.org. The rounded head and pale eye ring are apparent in this photo but not really the rufous tail

The fox cubs are growing up. It is difficult to say how many of them there are any more because they are only ever seen singly or in pairs these days:

They are wandering further from the den and are now turning up on other cameras around the wood:

This buzzard, with a lot of white on it, appeared on several cameras in the wood this week:

I finish this week with the cherry tree that has quite a few woodpecker holes in it. We have a camera trained on this tree and, earlier this year, it caught Brown Long-eared Bats roosting in the hole. But now there is something else interesting going on. A bright yellow fungus is billowing out of a high, upper woodpecker hole:

This is chicken of the woods, a sulphur yellow bracket fungus. It got its name because the fungus is meant to taste like, and have the texture of, chicken meat. What an amazing thing – I look forward to seeing how large this fungus gets as the summer progresses.

The Junipers of Samphire Hoe

This week we walked the dog at Samphire Hoe, a seventy-five acre country park at the bottom of steep chalk cliffs near Dover. The land here has been reclaimed from the sea using the chalk dug out when building the channel tunnel in the 1990s and it is really interesting to visit such new land that is still very much settling in:

The iconic lighthouse memorial at Samphire Hoe

Juniper grows on the steep and inaccessible cliffs behind the hoe:

Inspecting the cliffs for Juniper
Juniper bush growing high on the cliff

Britain only has three native conifers – Scots Pine, Yew and Juniper – and there is much worry about Juniper. It has declined in the south of England for a variety of reasons and needs urgent conservation work to understand the problems and put them right where possible.

We got talking to a park ranger there who told us a lot of very interesting stuff about the human history of the place. He has initiated a project trialling different ways to propagate new Juniper trees from the few existing, accessible Junipers that are growing wild in Kent. He showed us his little group of fledgling trees behind the visitor centre. But not only is Juniper very slow growing, it has the additional complication that it has male trees and female trees. This male one seemed to be doing very well though:

But most of his trees are absolutely tiny still:

Juniper likes chalk downland and so last autumn we bought four bare root Juniper trees from the Woodland Trust and planted them in the meadows as an experiment. These trees are probably not pedigree Kent thoroughbreeds like at Samphire Hoe, though, and we also now realise that we do not even know the sex of them. Nonetheless, these small trees all seem to be doing alright and are now showing signs of new spring growth and so hopefully we will eventually get a chance to find out which are male and which are female.

One of the newly-planted Juniper trees in the meadows

Six species of orchid now grow at Samphire Hoe, but the place is best known for its Early Spider Orchids. As the land matures, fewer are growing there though – from a peak of 11,500 in 2012, there are now only a few thousand but they were at their best for our visit:

This Hoary Cress was introduced to the country when its seeds were contained within mattresses that had been packed with straw on the continent to transport injured soldiers back home from the Napoleonic Wars. When the mattresses were dismantled, the straw was given to a farmer in Margate to spread on his land. The seeds germinated and the plant has been growing here ever since:

These Brown-tailed Moth hairy caterpillars are what Cuckoos love to eat, being able to tolerate their irritating hairs:

Back in the meadows, there are always a lot of woodpigeon, each of which must represent a substantial and easy meal for a sparrowhawk. We saw this sorry sight as we took a stroll round after lunch one day:

The feather shafts still had their pointed ends and so had been plucked out by a sparrowhawk rather than bitten off by a fox

We had probably disturbed the predator at her work and so, in the hope that she would return to reclaim her prey, we brought across a couple of cameras that had been on baby badger duty elsewhere. But after a while, the One-eyed Vixen, out for a stroll herself, came across the pigeon and took it off with her:

It looks like this unfortunate pigeon might well have been the bird that was sitting on the nest that we found last week. We had been hoping to monitor the progress of this nest but it has been forlornly unattended ever since. After a day or so, the eggs disappeared as well, no doubt discovered by crows or magpies:

The ill-fated Woodpigeon nest

Here is one of the culprits, although this is the smaller male Sparrowhawk with his brown cheeks. It would have been the much beefier female that would take a pigeon:

A while ago I finished treating the One-eyed Vixen for her mange with a course of Psorinum, and have since been scrutinising photos of her to see if she seems to be getting better, or continuing to get worse.

The One-eyed vixen in the foreground and her mate at the back. In the middle is another vixen who we think is their daughter from a previous year.

This is the third year that the One-eyed Vixen has brought up a family in the meadows and, each time, she has caught mange although I have been able to cure it. Now, even though it does look like perhaps there is short fur growing back in the bald patch, I have lost my nerve and started her on a course of Arsen Sulphur. This is an alternative cure for fox mange that has worked wonders in the past. Whereas the Psorinum is only a week’s course, the Arsen Sulphur needs to be given for much longer and so these foxes will be getting medicated honey sandwiches at dusk for a while yet. They will be pleased about this because they absolutely love them. Both these medications and dosages have been recommended to me in the past by The Fox Project, and can safely be given even to lactating animals.
The One-eyed Vixen with her blind left eye

This is the first glimpse this year of fox cubs in the meadows. This young fox was trying to get its father’s attention:

It then tried to bite his tail:

The cub seen by day. Looks to be older than the ones in the wood

The baby badgers continue to be a bit elusive this year, despite my best efforts. The twins are now being allowed up above ground for a limited time each night, watched over by their ever-attentive mother:

A robin is making her nest at the base of a shrub in the garden and I watched her as I sat at my desk:

It was difficult not to call attention to herself with so much activity – she certainly caught my eye and I was not alone. Before long a Magpie arrived and stood menacingly on the top of the shrub she is nesting in:

This does not augur well. To my mind, there are way too many magpies round here.

A few other photos from the meadows this week:

A Redwing, on its way up to the far north to breed
The first Small Copper of the year
Common Carpet Moth, often out flying by day
Three Yellowhammer – camouflaged amongst the buttercups
Haven’t seen a Kestrel in the meadows for a while
Lovely shot of his tail feathers

Over in the wood, I am finally starting to calm down after the exhilaration of finding Tawny Owl chicks in the nest box last weekend. The bird ringer sent me this photo that he took from the top of the ladder once he had safely returned the chicks to their box:

No doubt this is one of their parents at the nearby pond:

We are delighted that there has been so much bird ringing in the wood this spring. This is the third Marsh Tit that has been caught and ringed:

The down curved beak of a Treecreeper:

Treecreepers have stiff tail feathers to push against the tree trunk for extra support:

A Mistle Thrush is a new species for the wood:

There is also a potential and very exciting second new species seen this week although I am still waiting for the bird ringer to confirm – could this possibly be a Nightingale below? I think it is, myself, although I have not seen one before:

This action shot is of a confrontation between two Blackbirds. The female on the right is carrying nesting material in her beak:

The fox cubs are becoming more reddish and less snub-nosed:

They are now on solids and here is one with a rabbit:

Hedgehogs are gathering in our daughter’s garden in the North Downs. Pleasingly, the animals are using the hedgehog house put there for them:

And four of them have been seen in the same shot:

Our son and his girlfriend have now reached Africa on their world trip. They had just arrived in Tanzania when they saw these birds hopping around the airport carpark:

These are Superb Starlings. Our European Starlings can look pretty colourful themselves when the light hits them at the right angle:

One of the two pairs of European Starling that are nesting in the meadows this year

But it does have to be admitted that their colours are not a patch on their fancy cousins from East Africa. I am looking forward to what else we shall see of African wildlife over the next few weeks.

Bank Holiday Owlets

Today was definitely a red letter day, both for us and the wood. For a while now we have had some tantalising suggestions that Tawny Owls might be nesting in one of the boxes that we have put up. A trail camera on a pole nearby has produced an occasional photo of an adult owl in the box and, excitingly, on our last few visits we have been hearing tapping coming from within.

We met the bird ringers in the wood, one of whom is licensed to handle owls. However, although he has a lot of experience ringing Barn Owl chicks in the Stour Valley, he had never before ringed a Tawny.

As soon as we approached the box, a net was put over the opening in case there was an adult bird in the box that would try to fly out.

The ringer climbed the ladder wearing his safety specs to protect his eyes should there be an adult in there. Peeping carefully into the box, he saw two fluffy owlets within. Here is the first owlet coming out:

This first chick out of the box was the larger of the two. The length of her hind claw told us that this was a female.

A ring was put on the bird:

Although the young birds sat very calmly, they were clacking their beaks from time to time which was the source of the tapping noise that we had heard coming from the box.

Various measurements were taken while the chicks were in the hand. The second owlet was noticeably smaller yet was heavier, apparently because it had more recently eaten. The flight feathers were still encased in sheaths:

As were the feathers around the beak:

The larger female chick is on the left below. It wasn’t possible to sex the smaller chick using the length of its talons because it wasn’t yet old enough:

The female chick:

Then the chicks were placed safely back into their nest.

It really was a most special and memorable day.

Reculver Towers

This week we drove north up to Reculver near Herne Bay – not very far away but somewhere I had never been before. The iconic twin towers of St Mary’s Church, Reculver have been used as a navigation marker at the mouth of the River Thames for centuries.

The Romans built a fort here in AD200 and then, in the 7th century, an Anglo-Saxon monastery was constructed on the same site. Over time, this became the Reculver parish church until the 19th century, when coastal erosion became a problem and the structure was largely demolished, other than the twin towers.

Present day remains at Reculver showing the coastal erosion problem from an information board on site

The clifftop path here is a busy spot for dog walkers and cyclists, but we needed to be down on the beach for what we were looking for, and we had that more or less to ourselves.

Sandy cliffs stretching west towards Herne Bay from Reculver. We want to return soon in the afternoon when the cliffs will not be in heavy shadow

There were signs that many invertebrates had been making use of the soft, sandy cliffs but it was too early in the year for there to be any activity:

The thirty turbines of the Kentish Flats wind farm, eight miles out to sea

This is what we had come to see, the largest Sand Martin colony in Kent:

But even though I stood and watched for a while, there was nothing going in or out of the nest holes. Perhaps the birds were not back yet from Africa?

A short distance further along towards Herne Bay, however, the sky suddenly became alive with Sand Martins. This second, much smaller, colony was right up near the clifftop:

That distinctive brown band across the chest distinguishes them from other hirundines

Having seen what we came for, we found a path to get up and walked back to Reculver along the clifftop. Even though the meadows at the top are well frequented with humans, Skylarks were singing and Sand Martins were everywhere. We saw our first Whitethroat of the year with its scritchy-scratchy song:

A Black Oil Beetle lumbered across the path in front of us, although it played dead when it realised it had been spotted. What an amazing thing it is:

These animals have an interesting life cycle. This female, bloated full of eggs, will soon dig a hole to lay all her hundreds of eggs into. Once the larvae hatch, they climb up the stems of flowers and wait amongst the petals for a suitable mining bee to visit that could be its host. They attach themselves to the fur of the bee’s back using special hooks on their feet, and get carried back to the bee’s nest.

The beetle larva then lives off the bee’s store of pollen and nectar until it emerges from the nest as an adult. Although the south-west of the country remains a stronghold for them, all four species of British Oil Beetle are unfortunately under threat due to loss of wildflower-rich meadows and decline in their mining bee hosts.

Meanwhile, over in the wood, this blurry image was actually quite exciting:

A Brown Hare runs across the woodland clearing.

Hares are most commonly seen in grassland habitats and at woodland edges such as this, and their simple nests are above ground rather than underground in burrows as with rabbits. But they are less frequently found where there are lots of buzzards and foxes and so, although it was lovely to see this one, we might never expect good hare numbers here.

A buzzard in the wood this week…

…and action from the fox den:

We are still not sure what is going on in the owl box. As I stood under it to download the photos to the computer, there was repeated soft tapping coming from the box. Could that be young owlets I was hearing – or was it baby squirrels? The camera did have this photo of an owl flying out of the box, presumably alarmed by the nearby squirrel climbing the tree:

But that was its only photo of an owl – it is all very intriguing. We are now awaiting the return from holiday of the bird ringer who is licensed to handle owls and who is going to open the box to look inside once he is back.

One thing we know for sure is that squirrels are nesting in the former woodpecker hole this year:

Squirrel at the hole
A whole lot of grass stuffed into the hole

A large number of birds have been ringed in the wood this spring, including five Great Spotted Woodpeckers. This female, with her lovely red under-feathers, was very feisty and drew blood from the other bird ringer as he attempted to hold her so that I could take these pictures:

The woodland floor in the regeneration area is a beautiful mass of bugle spires, wild strawberry and foxgloves at the moment:

In the meadows, the breeding season is well underway. The Woodpigeon are nesting:

Feeding crop milk to the adult that will have been sitting on eggs
The Woodpigeon nest with two eggs. We can see into this nest and so hope to follow its fortunes as the spring progresses.

The Herring Gulls are nesting too:

And the Blackbirds:
Magpies are still carrying sticks around, despite having started building their nests as long ago as January:

A photo of some of the black-and-white animals in the meadows. An Ashy Mining Bee and our border collie dog would complete the collection:

Magpies like to escort foxes around whenever they can:

A beautiful Speckled Wood on the last of the Blackthorn blossom:

A Wall Butterfly

Late to the party, some of the beech trees are only now breaking out into leaf.

Beautiful just-opened beech leaves with their burnished edges and grey furriness

A badger trundles its way home at dawn this morning:

I was hoping to be able to give you a fluffy grand finale this week with some photos of the baby badgers, newly allowed up above ground by their mothers. But they are proving most elusive this year and currently this is the best that I can offer:

Hopefully, by my next post, I will be in a position to offer some better images of these adorable bundles of fun and fur.

Easter Round Up

Last autumn I planted some crown imperial fritillary bulbs in the garden. Whilst these are arresting and wonderful plants in their own right, what particularly interests me is that they are the only plant in Europe to be pollinated by a bird.

The plant is native from Turkey across to India and is bird pollinated across its entire range. Here, it is only Blue Tits that are exactly the right size and shape to make contact with both the male and female parts of the flower and thus pollinate it. They access the flowers from below, holding on to the central stem until launching themselves upwards into the bells. The plant produces plentiful amounts of nectar and this is sucrose-free so that the birds can digest it. Interestingly, the nectar of other species of fritillary, pollinated by bumblebees rather than birds, does contain sucrose.
Blue tit in the wood last year

I would absolutely love to see Blue Tits visiting the crown imperials and so have put a camera on them. Possibly it might take the birds a few years to realise that this resource is here for them, but I’m prepared to wait.

We put thirty Dormouse nesting boxes up in the wood earlier in the year and the Blue Tits there must be delighted with the sudden influx of potential nesting sites! This weekend we went round with the licensed ecologist on the first of the monthly monitoring visits and found that fourteen of the boxes had Blue Tit nests in them at various stages of construction. One even had a clutch of eggs already, discreetly hidden under a layer of feathers.

Box 11 with a bird nest of moss, hay and feathers within. A yellow duster blocks the hole as the lid is edged sideways to peer in

There were no signs of Dormouse activity in any of the boxes this time but they will be checked again next month.

We have discovered that there are six cubs in the fox den in the wood. Although the average litter size for foxes is four to five, bigger litters are not uncommon:

Night-time suckling
The cubs are now starting to be seen out during the day, but stay very close to the den:

As I was crouching down beside this camera with my computer to download the photos, one of the cubs came above ground. It visibly jumped when it saw me, not two metres away from it, and retreated back into the mouth of the burrow to stare at me from there. A very memorable and special moment indeed.

The cubs are ridiculously sweet, the colour of the earth with a reddishness about the face as a sign of what is to come. Some of them have a white tip to the end of their tail.

Thermoregulation in the young cubs is not great and so, when not busy exploring the world around the burrow, they huddle together to keep warm awaiting the return of their mother:

A ball of cubs

Although the cubs themselves are not yet on solids, the adult foxes are bringing prey back for each other.

There has been lovely weather all week, bringing the wood alive with spring butterflies. Orange Tips visiting the bluebells, Peacocks, Speckled Woods, lots of Brimstones…

A female Brimstone, the males being lemon-yellow

… and we followed a Green-veined White as it worked its way along the woodland path from violet to violet:

This young rabbit stayed still long enough for a photo:

An Easter Bunny

A Brambling sighting was a first for the wood:

Every spring a pair of Bullfinch have arrived to raise a family:

A Marsh Tit has been coming to the wool dispenser to collect wool and I wonder if it is nesting in one of the bird boxes? Last spring we moved a trail camera on a tripod from box to box to see what was nesting within each one. It was exclusively Great Tits and Blue Tits back then, but who knows what we shall discover this year.

Marsh Tit about to collect some wool

Across in the meadows, the Smooth Newts are very active in the ponds at the moment. The bellies of the females are swollen with eggs and the over-attentive males are making nuisances of themselves.

Not a great photo but the female is lighter with a rotund abdomen

It surely can’t be very long now before the badger cubs come above ground. Yet again, the babies have been carried around between burrows a few times this week:

The Blackthorn blossom in the hedgerows cannot fail to lift the spirits, with the Hawthorn yet to come:

And the fruit trees are in glorious flower in the orchard. Pear blossom:

And deliciously pink apple blossom:

Dark-edged Bee-fly enjoying the flowers…

..and in profile showing its tufty long fur and spindly legs:

A lovely image of a hedgehog in our daughter’s garden in the North Downs. What a shiny, wet nose it has:

At this time of year, there is an endless list of jobs to do in the garden and allotment, and the beautiful Easter weather has got us out to get some of these ticked off.

Getting the first early potatoes in

In one corner of the allotment, the rhubarb leaves are starting to thrust themselves up above ground and, from time to time, we stop by to note the progress, dreaming of the rhubarb crumbles to come.